“Conflict is a good thing” was the sales pitch from a rug salesman desperate to try and shift the most hideous fuchsia floor rug that would have been objectively unacceptable to any design theory to my father in the early 90s and has become a running gag whenever there is a disagreement in our household.  Every time before trial, in those quiet moments before the judge enters the courtroom, that shared inside family joke makes its internal appearance while I reflect on how the parties got to the winner-take-all situation that they find themselves in.

Litigation is less like a gladiatorial arena than it is a Sisyphean exercise in watching your perfectly placed boulder roll back down the hill.  After the dust settles, we are all left with the lingering question: what could we have done? Conflict after conflict has taught me that the fight is rarely ever worth it in the end if both sides can come to a resolution sooner. The hard part is always encouraging everyone to abandon their entrenched positions of “I’m right, you’re wrong.”

Getting yourself or your opposition into a headspace where resolution is possible against this backdrop is harder now than ever given that every confrontation escalates because everyone is driven by that desperate need to demonstrate that not only do they matter, but they matter most. De-escalating a confrontation keeps the conversation moving towards resolution. A conflict that continues to escalate in tone and in language derails the process of resolving the issue at hand.

In a previous article, Altitude Community Law identified 6 factors that lead to an escalation in conflict,  which continue to ring true:

  1. Disrespectful language is being used;
  2. A disrespectful attitude is being demonstrated;
  3. One party or another doesn’t feel heard;
  4. Losing the argument will result in a loss of face or reputation with others;
  5. At least one person involved doesn’t fully understand the situation; or
  6. Someone feels powerless because they don’t know what steps to take next.

Identifying and recognizing these factors will tried and true de-escalate any conflict.

  1. Disrespectful language is being used. 

It must be stopped, immediately, and with no exceptions. The easiest way to shut down any negotiation is to disrespect the other side. I have personally been called stupid by an opposing party in trial. Not only did I not appreciate that, the judge didn’t either, stopped trial and threatened to remove opposing party from the court room for the duration of the trial. The same is true of attitude and body language. You can have all the diplomatic wording ready, but as is universal if you aren’t actively engaged with your body posture and tone sincerely, no one will believe you. It’s the same as being placated by a teenager after they confirm the will do something that we all know they have no intention of actually doing. No one trusts a “Yes” if it is accompanied by an eye roll. It’s one thing to say I understand but your body language needs to communicate that as well.

  1. One party or another doesn’t feel heard.

This premise is more often than not the reason why half of cases get filed against an association, especially in small claims courts. Nothing will bring parties together like commiseration or finding common cause or shared experience. This is the simplest way to shift a party’s position from a stone wall to being open to resolution. People rarely want to actually fight, especially when confronted with the realization that they are fighting other people. It’s easy to rail against a corporation, it’s much harder to shout at your neighbor.

  1. At least one person involved doesn’t fully understand the situation.

A lack of information can make someone feel powerless. And powerless feelings can manifest themselves into overly aggressive responses.  Wrong or incomplete information can add fuel to a fire. The former is easy to fix as association management and governance is very much a practice of “say what you are going to do and do what you said you were going to do”.  There are of course pieces of information that should absolutely not be shared under any circumstance, but generally if you tell your homeowners the truth then there is no reason to question credibility. The latter is the other reason why so many cases proceed to trial. There is little one can do to force someone to understand they are wrong and the more you try to force that understanding, the more resistant humans become to listening. Though the effects of bad information can be alleviated by keeping a dialog open and providing clear easily understandable information.

  1. Someone feels powerless because they don’t know what steps to take next.

Empower the other party by focusing on the future. Give specific actionable steps they should take and articulate specific actionable steps you or the association will take. Specify a deadline for the other party and yourself. A clear path forward is easy to follow and leaves less room for mistakes and anger. No one likes being stuck on the phone with IT support, no one should have to go through that type of experience when being told how to fix a problem.

The above factors can be reduced two simple components: Listen and Communicate. Don’t get mad, Don’t get revenge, Get what you want. The more information you can actively take in and the more information and direction you can clearly provide, the less likely any conflict will escalate. Of course, there are some disagreements that will not resolve on their own without a court’s intervention despite your best efforts. But listening and communicating will help you avoid that final showdown in which two parties enter one party leaves or avoid a lawsuit all together. After all, the best fights are the ones you don’t have to have.

If you have any questions about avoiding or de-escalating a conflict, or if you find yourself embroiled in one please contact one of our Altitude attorneys at 303-432-9999 or email us at [email protected].

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